Jerusalem — For the second time in as many days, Palestinian guerrillas blew up an Israeli armored personnel carrier in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, demolishing the vehicle and killing at least five Israeli soldiers inside, Palestinian militants said.
An Israeli army spokesman said that the vehicle had been traveling in the so-called Philadelphi corridor between Egypt and the Gaza Strip about 6:45 p.m. when it apparently drove over a bomb that had been planted in the road.
The Israeli military did not immediately confirm the deaths. Its regulations require that the soldiers’ families be notified before any information is released.
Palestinian militants in Gaza said that at least five Israeli soldiers had been killed and two injured in the blast, which was almost a carbon copy of a roadside bombing Tuesday near Gaza City in which six Israeli soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier drove over a planted bomb.
Together, the back-to-back explosions marked the deadliest two days for the Israeli military since April 9, 2002, when 13 Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp at the height of Operation Defensive Shield, the most intensive combat operation in the 3 1/2- year-old Palestinian uprising.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli soldiers supported by tanks swept through the southern Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun searching for the remains of the six soldiers killed Tuesday.
The searches frequently set off gun battles and Israeli missile strikes that killed at least three Palestinians and injured about 50, Palestinian hospital officials said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and Egyptian diplomats contacted leaders from three Palestinian guerrilla groups in Gaza and asked for help in recovering the remains, Red Cross and Palestinian officials said. The three groups — the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — each claimed to be holding body parts belonging to the Israeli soldiers and have made conflicting demands for their return.
“The ball is in Israel’s court,” Khader Habib, a leader of Islamic Jihad, told the New York Times. Asked which factions that have claimed to hold remains actually had them, he said: “Everyone has some. We have the head.”
Senior Israeli political and military officials have ruled out any negotiations and have vowed that troops will remain in Gaza and continue their search operations until the bodies are recovered.
“They will stay there as long as necessary to bring back the bodies for burial here in Israel,” said Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, calling it “part of the whole Jewish tradition” to preserve and protect a body for interment.
ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno said the Red Cross would not engage in negotiations with the guerrillas but would act only as an intermediary on behalf of Israel.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat instructed his security forces to make “every possible effort” to reclaim the bodies, according to Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator with Israel.
“It’s unethical,” Erekat said, referring to the way Palestinian gunmen collected the body parts after the explosion Tuesday and then proudly displayed them in Gaza neighborhoods and on Arab satellite television stations. “This is absolutely despicable to the almost 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza.”
Some Palestinians said they found it disturbing that the images appeared on the same day as another story about the beheading of an American contractor in Iraq. They worried, they said, that Palestinian groups fighting a decadeslong battle for national liberation could be equated with Islamic extremist groups fighting against the West — a parallel that Israeli officials often draw.
And they said they were equally concerned about the growing radicalization of Palestinians.
The desecration of the Israeli bodies “is a sign of despair,” said Ali Jerbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University, who said “there’s no parallel” with Iraq because “we’ve been suffering from this occupation for 37 years.”
The display of the Israeli remains “reflects the resentment and anger and I think a desire for revenge, and this may apply to the people in Iraq, after what they’ve seen happening there — the humiliation,” said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament from Gaza City. “But it has to be condemned in every possible way.”
Numerous Israeli analysts compared Israel’s position in Gaza to its occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended after 18 years with a unilateral withdrawal four years ago. The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah harassed the army for years in Lebanon.
“Gaza is Lebanon, Lebanon is Gaza,” wrote journalist Ben Caspit in the newspaper Maariv. “The same swamp, the same pool of blood.”
Several commentators noted that Israel was in something of a paradoxical position still fighting in Gaza, because its right-wing prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, have declared that Israel has no strategic interest in remaining in Gaza.